NASA and an assorted bevy of astronomers and biologists recently admitted two mistakes of epic proportions: there are three times as many stars in the sky than they'd thought, and there's life on Earth based on elements that we didn't believe life could be based upon anywhere in the Universe, let alone here.
Yet I still believe what they're saying is true.
I feel the same way about weather forecasters, who're wrong much of the time but still get my attention with each new day. It's as if admitting to being wrong makes them far more credible and trustworthy than anybody claiming to be right always.
There's an interesting dynamic going on here. Why does being wrong support their authority?
- We understand their intentions, and we trust them, too; it's hard to imagine an ulterior motive for weather forecasts (a secretive deal with an umbrella manufacturer, perhaps?). The scientific method requires that theories be disproven in order to be right, so making a point forcefully is less valid than strongly exploring a weakness. So do we trust because we're certain their conclusions are right or rather because their intentions are?
- We don't possess a basis to challenge their conclusions. I will readily admit that I can't fathom a weather map, and don't expect me to sit in a science lab and stay awake while watching fruit flies procreate (or whatever). It's just not my thing. The good news is that I don’t have to understand how they reach their conclusions, nor necessarily believe them...I just need to believe that they understand how they get to them. I guess you could say a weather forecast is a guess but it's a learned one.
- They admit to their imperfection, sometimes so much so that being wrong is what they do best. This is a giant point that contrasts with the way, say, politicians make a point of never admitting shortcomings or fault. People understand that nobody can be right all of the time and we can often see the evidence even if the perpetrators can't (or won't). Actively trying to discover your own mistakes is a step beyond this condition, and knowing politicians wanted to discover how their most vaunted theories may or may not be true would go a long way toward earning our trust.
Maybe I've got it all wrong? My points above certainly aren't sacrosanct. Anybody with an Internet connection thinks they're qualified to judge economic policies or climate change theories. It's common now to doubt anyone's intentions and accuse them of biased conclusions, especially when debating the conclusions themselves defies the level of understanding available via an Internet connection. The Internet transforms even the slightest fact into an opinion, leaving it to sharing or discarding to determine its truth.
I can't help but imagine that admitting imperfection would help restore consumer faith in corporate reputations and brands. I just read that some scientists are contesting the discoveries as I write this. So I think I'm going to keep on believing the folks who admit that they don't have all the answers. It just seems so much more credible than those who try to stifle questions...or can't ask them of themselves.
(Image credit: Night sky from NHNE Pulse)